During a recent rehearsal for the new touring production of Dear Evan Hansen, launching September 25 in Denver, actress Jessica Phillips — who plays Evan’s mom, Heidi — had what she describes as a “meta experience.” It was the first day of high school this fall for Phillips’s sons, a sophomore and a senior, “and I sent them off and then went to rehearsal and found myself working on the scene where Heidi sends her son off for his senior year. It was one of those moments that I felt so grateful to have an opportunity to tell this story.”
That sense of gratitude is shared by all four of the actresses currently playing the roles of Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy, Evan Hansen’s other mother. In addition to Phillips, they include Christiane Noll, the tour’s Cynthia; Jennifer Laura Thompson, who originated the role of Cynthia Off-Broadway and on, and Lisa Brescia, who stepped into the role of Heidi in August.
Thompson and Noll are both mothers as well, of a 14-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, respectively, and Brescia is stepmother to a 23-year-old woman who was only 6 when they met; Brescia also teaches young men and women as an assistant professor of theater and dance at Missouri State University. They all say that getting to know Heidi, a single mom struggling to raise the alienated Evan, and Cynthia, an affluent married woman whose own troubles are revealed when her son commits suicide, has enriched them as artists and women.
“I’ve been living with Cynthia for the past four and a half years, and I feel like every day I learn something new about her, and about myself,” says Thompson. “I love playing a realistic, modern woman on a Broadway stage, in a musical, being able to draw on real experiences. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that before.”
Thompson’s own teenage son recently saw Evan Hansen for the first time. “All his peers had seen it and thought it was cool that I was his mom,” she muses. “But I wasn’t sure for a while if I could handle having him in the audience watching me,” in character, confront Cynthia’s torment. Noll can relate: “My daughter already announced she doesn’t want to come because she doesn’t want to see me upset. But we’ve talked it over, and I think she’s prepared.”
Brescia’s performance has been informed by her observations off stage, in the classroom. “My students are about 18 when they come in, and I see all the young characters in the show in them,” she says. “I’ve been mentoring young people for a long time, and I see how often they feel their lives are over. I felt that way myself as a younger woman, and to be able to say, ‘I promise you, this too shall pass,’ that means a lot.”
Both Brescia and Phillips point to Heidi’s climactic song, “So Big/So Small,” as a particularly resonant moment. “She’s coming to grips with how hard she’s been trying to do the right thing” for herself and Evan, “and just telling him, ‘This is where we’re at, and I can’t tell you we’ll fix this, but you are going to feel better — and I’m not going anywhere.’”
Playing Heidi and Cynthia has also helped the actors come to terms with their own challenges and self-doubt. For Thompson, “the biggest hurdle was finding forgiveness and moving forward after Evan lies” to Cynthia, by letting her believe he was close friends with her late son, Connor. “I couldn’t wrap my head around that, because I didn’t know what I would do in that situation. But this show encourages forgiveness on all levels — for feeling that you’ve failed your son or daughter, for misleading people. … I thrive on Cynthia’s relentlessness; she never gives up. And it also makes me aware of when I’m overstepping as a parent, trying to protect my son from things he could learn from.”
Brescia sees a similar fortitude in Heidi, who has enhanced her “appreciation for single moms, especially those who don’t come from a position of financial security. When my sister and I were young, my mom was on her own, with only a high school education, finding ways to feed and clothe and shelter us. Heidi is heroic to me because she doesn’t give up. Her days are long and strenuous and often not fulfilling, but as imperfect as she is, she does her best every single day. And I think single moms appreciate seeing themselves represented honestly on stage. One gave me a fist bump the other day.”
When Noll saw the Broadway production for the first time recently, “there was a family sitting next to me, with a mother and her 15-year-old daughter. And the mother, for whatever reason, started confiding in me, telling me her daughter had no use for her at that time, but she had wanted to see the show with her. And you could tell by watching them that there was a shift, that something new would happen after they had seen this together.”
Thompson notes that when audience members gather outside the theatre to greet performers after the show, “the younger kids are at the front of the line, and they’re nervous and giddy and lovely. But then I’ll see the parents behind them, who say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ They see us playing flawed parents who fail and worry and grieve, and it opens up a dialogue. I get letters that say, ‘We speak now; we never spoke before.’ Who gets to have that kind of impact?”
Pictured above from left to right: Lisa Brescia (Photo by Jenny Anderson), Jessica Phillips, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Christiane Noll (Photos by Nathan Johnson)